Category: comedies / In category: 9 of 10 / Overall: 75 of 100
Frank Capra’s 1934 Oscar-grabber (four gongs: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress) pretty much sets the standard for romantic comedies. It’s also a pretty good road movie. Made now, and with the main characters and narrative tropes intact – mismatched couple; bullish rich father; truculent newspaper editor; gabby wiseass with an angle to play; poor little rich girl culture clash set-pieces; a running joke about sleeping arrangements; a final obstacle that almost puts the kibosh on the burgeoning romance; a runaway bride denouement – the content would seem clichéd, but that’s only because Capra marshals his material with such aplomb, creating a sparky and quick-witted classic, that Hollywood has spent seven and a half decades tirelessly cribbing from it.
Do I need to recap the plot? Probably not, but this’d be a damn short review otherwise so here goes. Socialite Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) escapes house arrest – or rather yacht arrest – and goes on the run from her father (Walter Connolly) who is aghast at her impulsive marriage to the ridiculously named King Westley (Jameson Thomas) and is determined to keep her under lock and key while his lawyers have the union nullified. While Andrews hires private detectives and manipulates the media in order to find his daughter, Ellie meets rumpled and recently fired journalist Peter Warnes (Clark Gable). When Peter finds out who Ellie is, he sees her as his meal ticket back into a job: the inside story on a media brouhaha that – during their four days on the road – sweeps America. Ellie, bristling at Peter’s commonness, nonetheless realises she needs him to get to New York and Westley.
Capra, intuitive enough to know that between Robert Riskin’s script (from a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams) and his stars’ chemistry he didn’t need to impose any directorial stylisations on the proceedings, keeps things moving along at a fair pace but otherwise lets the zinging dialogue and the Gable/Colbert double act speak for itself.
The road movie element of ‘It Happened One Night’ has a real sense of movement and distance being covered, whether by bus (until a washed out bridge halts progress), hitch-hiking, wading barefoot across rivers or the rickety and undependable progress of a less-than-legally acquired jalopy ("How did you get the car?" "I traded him a black eye for and left him tied to a tree").
The romantic comedy element consists almost entirely of Ellie and Peter bickering, usually about their differences in perception, experience and social background. The techniques of hitching; the art of dunking doughnuts in coffee; whose father gave the best piggyback ride when they were kids – there’s nothing these two won’t argue about. And the more absurd their disagreements, the funnier.
Capra has fun puncturing Peter’s salt of the earth/man of the people persona: he calls Ellie "brat" for most of the movie and talks himself up as Mr Capable, but half the time he’s lovably incompetent (check out the classic hitch-hiking scene where Peter works through a repertoire of thumbing to avail and Ellie stops her car on her first attempt by flashing an expanse of bare leg) while elsewhere, despite his veil of cynicism, he’s a perfect gentleman. His warning off of the predatory Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), who has also recognised Ellie and figures he can make some easy money, is one of many inspired set-pieces and an early indicator that his own motivations are starting to crumble under a genuine protectiveness towards Ellie.
Examples of Capra’s trademark feelgood aesthetic abound – Ellie giving their remaining money to a distraught young boy; a rousing singalong which unites the disparate passengers on a long and tedious bus journey; Ellie’s father coming through for her in fine style at the end – yet ‘It Happened One Night’ isn’t as swamped in sentimentality as many of his other films. There’s a bit of bite and attitude to it. Some of the social mores and colloquialisms are dated, but it remains remarkably fresh and energetic; 76 years down the line, there’s still a swagger in its step and a glint in its eye.